By Andy Ziker

Do you become bored or uninspired while repeatedly playing the same cover tunes as closely as possible to the original? Do you sometimes ask yourself in frustration why the club doesn’t just hire a DJ? Drummers are often asked to play the same tempo, groove, and fills from popular music night after night. It’s never quite good enough for the lead singer or bandleader; they want to hear the drum performances and sounds from the record, not your best effort.

This is in no way forsaking the hard work and dedication put in by cover/tribute band drummers around the world. Earning a living is vitally important and listeners do tend to gravitate towards the familiar (for whatever reason). However, history seems to nudge one down a different path.

The concept of playing “jazz standards” started around the ’30s and involved musicians coming up with their own take on Broadway show tunes, Hollywood musicals, and other popular songs. To this day, playing standards a different way each time is an accepted practice, while copping every Tony William’s lick off a Miles Davis album would be viewed as a learning exercise, not a performance vehicle.

Fortunately, for the past 50 years, some pop artists have borrowed from the jazz paradigm. Today, TV shows such as The Voice promote the idea of singers performing cover songs their own way. The following list celebrates those artists who allow the beat of their own drummer. Groove segments from six well-known original songs are analyzed/transcribed alongside some killer covers.

‘Mrs. Robinson’

This playlist includes the original and the covers mentioned below.

Hal Blaine, the session drummer on Simon And Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” demonstrates the ultimate in taste and restraint when the drums come in during the chorus (Ex. 1). Somehow, he is able to propel the music forward with a sparse samba (using bass drum and hi-hat only) over bongos and shaker. The Lemonheads, a modern rock band from the ’80s are responsible for the most popular cover of “Mrs. Robinson.” The notation in Ex. 2 details a simple fill leading into a punk beat, but the courageous, drastic departure from the original tempo and feel is just what was required to produce a hit. In the first four bars of the shout chorus (Ex. 3) from Frank Sinatra’s big band arrangement of “Mrs. Robinson,” snare comping and crash hits cleverly reinforce the melody. Al Jackson Jr., longtime drummer for instrumental R&B group Booker T & The MGs, drives the chorus “Soul Man” style, but reinforces the melody by leaving out two bass drum notes in the last four bars (Ex. 4).

‘Smooth Criminal’

This playlist includes the original and the covers mentioned below.

At a quick glance, when you place JR Robinson’s verse groove (from Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”) next to Mike Cosgrove’s interpretation (Alien Ant Farm), the two samples seem to be very similar (Exs. 5–6). The differences are understated but combine for an unexpectedly satisfying change: increased tempo for a sense of urgency; acoustic-only drum sounds replace electronically enhanced ones; and funky rather than functional bass drum note placement.

‘Take Five’

This playlist includes the original and the covers mentioned below.

It would seem counterintuitive to attempt to cover Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” After all, it is the top-selling jazz single of all time, involves a 5/4 time signature, and includes a masterful Joe Morello drum solo. Tito Puente, Al Jarreau, George Benson, and New York Ska Jazz Ensemble didn’t seem to let this bother them. The first four bars of the original “Take Five” are transcribed here (Ex. 7). Notice how Morello’s eighth-note triplets (in beat 5) flow seamlessly into the next measure. Tito Puente’s 4/4 mambo sounds as natural as the original. Puente’s ride pattern creates a three-beat, over-the-bar polyrhythmic effect (Ex. 8). Al Jarreau’s cover features an amalgamation of 5/4 Latin and funk coupled with sporadic bass drum placements (Ex. 9), while George Benson’s jazz-pop version incorporates a Roy Haynes-esque lick on beats 4 and 5 (Ex. 10). Yao Dinizulu (of the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble) jabs explosively into a typical one drop reggae pattern (Ex. 11). If you hadn’t heard the original, you might think that “Take Five” was always this danceable.

‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’

This playlist includes the original and the covers mentioned below.

Charlie Watts’ groove on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” can be grueling to play for long periods of time (Ex. 12). The Stones’ drummer was certainly not trying to outdo Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker on that one. Nevertheless, you can’t argue with success and the Stones have had plenty of it. Alan Myers of Devo has quite a different take on this classic. Although just as repetitious as the original, Myers plays a bizarrely backwards groove, locking in with a bass guitar accent on beat 2, adding a ride bell on the & of 1 and the & of 3, and playing flat flams on beats 1 and 3 and power flams on the & of 2 and the & of 4. All of this provides plenty of contrast to quirky offbeat vocals (Ex. 13).

‘Tom Sawyer’

This playlist includes the original and the covers mentioned below.

How many drummers out there have jammed along (or tried) to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush? Okay, you can put your hands down now. Many of us are familiar with Neil Peart’s one-handed sixteenth-note prog-funk groove from the original (Ex. 14) over the lyrics: “Today’s Tom Sawyer … he gets by on you.” Both Dave King of The Bad Plus and Matt Zebroski of Alex Skolnick Trio get creative behind jazz chord reharmonizations. They both loosen up the funk and rely less on patterns and more on improvising the bass drum part (Exs. 15–16). Kitty of Mindless Self Indulgence speeds it up and shows how to turn “Tom Sawyer” into a surprisingly pleasurable electro-metal experience (Ex. 17).

‘Got To Get You Into My Life’

This playlist includes the original and the covers mentioned below.

In what is bound to be sacrilege to Beatles fans everywhere, Earth, Wind & Fire’s version of “Got To Get You Into My Life” could be considered an improvement over the original. The corresponding eight-bar segments — taken from the first bridge — reveal dramatically different approaches (Exs. 18 and 19). Ringo Starr stays out of the way, while Fred White (and the rest of Earth, Wind & Fire) fuels funky syncopation along with the bass player and makes hits with the horn section. 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Drum! magazine. This is the first time it has appeared online.

Linear drumming is a unique style of playing drum grooves and fills using a single stream of notes between your hands and feet. Because the hands and feet don’t play at the same time, you will not play a group of stacked notes. Get into it with our FREE Intro to Linear Drumming PDF minibook!